Microsoft Changes Temp Benefits -- Workers Will Be Able To Choose Employment Agency

Responding to the complaints of temporary workers, Microsoft is changing its contracts with employment agencies to improve benefits and give workers a choice of agencies.

About 6,000 temps were informed by the agencies yesterday of changes in Microsoft's contracting policy, effective May 3. Most of those workers are in Redmond.

Instead of being told by Microsoft which payroll agency they will work for, as is the current practice, workers will be able choose among competing agencies. The agencies are expected to provide at least the following benefits:

-- Thirteen paid days off each year, including sick leave, holidays and vacations.

-- Medical and dental coverage, with the employer paying half the cost.

-- Training opportunities worth $500 a year.

-- A 401(k) or other retirement program, with the employer partly matching employee contributions.

Sharon Decker, Microsoft's contingent-staffing director, said most agencies already provide some benefits, but their benefit packages are "all over the board."

The changes respond to some, but not all, of the most frequent complaints from temporary workers. Unhappiness over temporary-employment policies has led to two lawsuits by temps against Microsoft and to creation of a labor union, the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers, or WashTech.

"It sounds like we got quite a lot. I'm thrilled," said a former temp who now works for Microsoft as a full-time technical editor. The employee, who asked not to be identified, said she credits the changes at least in part to the union's pressure.

Marcus Courtney, co-founder and organizer of WashTech, called the change "a step in the right direction," but said the union still believes temps are treated as second-class workers.

Douglas Middleton, vice president of employment agency Meridian Partners, said his company looks forward to more open competition for contract workers.

Decker said Microsoft doesn't dictate how much employment agencies pay or what benefits they provide to temporary workers. But, in deciding which agencies would receive employment contracts in the coming year, Microsoft asked them to provide benefits that meet the new minimum standards.

Competition among employment agencies is seen as an incentive that could lead them to offer benefits beyond the minimum.

Microsoft now hires all of its Puget Sound-area temps through five employment agencies. Workers usually aren't allowed to choose which agency they work for, and some agencies require workers to sign contracts that prohibit them from working for other agencies for a specified period.

Temporary workers seeking to be recognized as Microsoft employees have attacked "non-compete" provisions as an antitrust violation.

The new policy boosts the number of primary agencies in the Puget Sound area to 15. As many as eight agencies will compete for workers in each of five different skill areas.

Employment agencies still will be allowed to subcontract labor from other agencies, but subcontractors will be expected to meet the minimum benefit standards.

It's unclear whether temps working on assignments extending beyond May 3 may switch agencies while continuing to work in those jobs, Decker said.